Generating Story Ideas and Overcoming Writer's Block

Today's topics are generating story ideas and overcoming writer's block.

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #56

writers block

It's a rare bonus episode! Today's topics are generating story ideas and overcoming writer’s block.

Matt from College Park wrote in saying that the podcast has helped his writing, and now his only problem is finding something to write about! He wants to know if I have any tips for overcoming writer's block or figuring out where to begin writing.

OK. Back to story ideas. First I'll talk about non-fiction writing, and then I'll talk about fiction writing because I think the process is different for each.

Generating Non-Fiction Story Ideas

I made my living as a freelance magazine writer for a few years, so my ability to pay my bills rested on my ability to generate marketable story ideas. For the first couple of months it was difficult, but much to my surprise, after I got into the groove and became familiar with my target publications, I saw story ideas everywhere. Some days I would come up with as many as five story ideas. Some of them weren’t so great, but with that many to choose from, I could easily pick the winners.

For me, generating story ideas was all about having the right mindset and surrounding myself with people and publications. Here's some specific advice.

Adopt a curious mindset. You want to know the details about everything. I once got a great story idea for a science trade magazine just from a friend’s casual mention of a repetitive-stress injury. That initial brief comment led me to learn—and write—about lab workers who have had to change careers due to repetitive pipetting. If I hadn't been inquisitive, I wouldn't have learned that there was a story behind that initial brief comment.

Stay current. When you know what's going on, you can spot trends and areas where different stories might intersect. When I was freelancing I subscribed to about 20 magazines and spent at least two hours a day reading news on the Internet. One kind of story that could come out of this type of undirected research is a piece about environmentally friendly weddings. A few years ago, green stories were popping up everywhere. Then I saw an unrelated article about weddings, and suddenly the idea of green weddings popped into my head.

Talk to people. This might seem obvious, but many stories are about people. The more people you talk to, the better chance you have of stumbling upon a really great story. Also, when I was a science writer, almost all my story ideas came from talking to scientists because they had better access to cutting-edge information than I did. I got stories from scientists I was already interviewing for other stories and from scientists I met at conferences.

Identify the publications you want to write for. Keep a list of targeted publications in mind as you're out in the world. I've heard magazine editors complain that writers pitch stories that wouldn't be appropriate for the magazine, so if you are very familiar with a publication and know what kind of stories it runs, not only can you identify ideas, but you'll also write a pitch that's more likely to be accepted.

Image: Write, Erich Stussi at Flickr. CC BY 2.0 Generic. 

Next: Learn From How I Got My Big Break


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.